USA Today poll: Support for legalizing gay marriage hits all-time high after Court rulings

Sometimes the Court helps shape public opinion, other times it gets too aggressive on an issue and there’s a backlash. If USA Today’s right, the DOMA/Prop 8 rulings are a small example of the former rather than the latter.

“Neither one of those decisions is as a legal matter a huge gay rights victory,” says Tom Goldstein, a Harvard Law School professor and publisher of SCOTUSblog, which analyzes the high court. “But it’s the moral message from the court that these unions are entitled to equal respect … that is probably the lasting legacy of the decisions and is probably going to play a significant role in public opinion.”…

By an unprecedented 55%-40%, Americans say marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights of traditional marriage. That’s the highest level of support since Gallup began asking the question in 1996. Then, fewer than half that number, 27%, backed the idea…

The only major demographic groups in which a majority oppose same-sex marriage are Republicans (68%) and seniors 65 and older (51%). Even in the South, which continues to be the only region that doesn’t show majority support for gay marriage, opposition has slipped below 50%.

Interestingly, support for the Court’s DOMA decision was split almost evenly at just 48/43. I’m not sure Tom Goldstein’s right, then, that the “moral message” from the Court rulings nudged the numbers in favor of SSM up a few point. My hunch is that it was more the aftermath of the rulings, with lots of coverage of jubilant gay-rights supporters, that pushed the approval line upward. Seeing people exuberant over new rights they’ve been granted is apt to tilt a few fencesitters in favor of SSM, and hearing so many gays interviewed in the days after the ruling may have a normalizing effect on skeptics. I’ve seen polls before that show the single greatest factor in changing one’s mind about gay marriage is knowing someone who’s out. A surge in media coverage that gives plenty of airtime to people who are openly gay might have a smaller but similar effect.

I went looking for crosstabs because I’m fascinated by the fact that opposition to gay marriage is down to a bare 51 percent even among the 65+ crowd. I couldn’t find any, but Harry Enten of the Guardian sent me the crosstabs to the last poll on gay marriage that USA Today’s pollster conducted. Back in May, opposition among seniors was at 53 percent, but there was a sharp partisan split: Republican seniors opposed it overwhelmingly, 18/74, while Democratic seniors actually supported it, 47/42. Independent seniors were mildly opposed but otherwise similar to Democrats, 43/47. The subsample of seniors was small in each case, but if the numbers accurate, the percentage of older Republicans who oppose gay marriage is actually greater than the percentage of white evangelicals who do (23/72). Bear that in mind the next time you hear someone in the GOP brain trust say that the party needs to get with the times and capture younger voters by switching to supporting gay marriage. That’s a smart (and inevitable) tactic long-term, but there are an awful lot of seniors in the GOP camp who seem to care a lot about this. Will younger voters replace them completely in 2016?